No sweetness in bitter war against sugar
Fat has been given a reprieve as sugar gets the blame for everything from heart and liver disease to cancer
Sugar is an emotional food – perhaps the most emotional food of all. It is routinely used as a comforter, a pacifier, a stimulant, a leisure accessory. Photograph: Getty Images
So now sugar is the new Satan and we, the worried well, have to run off to another part of the great ship Hypochondria. Suddenly fat is no longer the bad guy. Other carbohydrates are being rehabilitated but, according to a slew of commentary aimed at the befuddled consumer, it is sugar, sugar, sugar that is responsible not only for making us fat but also for giving us liver disease, heart disease, and some cancers, as well as type 2 diabetes – no surprises on that last one.
The new anti-sugar campaign has been the main talking point of the diet industry this month, when it reaches its annual book-selling peak. The anti-sugar publicity is a lifeline thrown to ambitious authors who know the public is beginning to tire of being served up one diet after another. It’s neatly encapsulated by Why Diets Fail (Because You’re Addicted to Sugar): Science Explains How to End Cravings, Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Nichole M Avena and John R. Talbott.
Most radically of all, this new condemnation of sugar also includes the theory that sugar is so dangerously addictive that it makes us slaves to our own appetites, which are driven by our compromised biochemistry, and so beyond the reach of our willpower.
Sugar is an emotional food – perhaps the most emotional food of all. It is routinely used as a comforter, a pacifier, a stimulant, a leisure accessory. And that’s just when you are aware that you’re consuming it; hidden sugar is the new subject for public discussion.
Many people who believe themselves to be “sugar sensitive” say consuming it leads to nasty mood swings and even withdrawal symptoms.
In the 20th century chocolate was automatically included in the kit of soldiers going into battle. Sugar has been self-administered by battalions of pre-menstrual women for years.
And now it seems the academic and nutrition communities are just as emotional on the subject of sugar. Simon Capewell, professor of clinical epidemiology at Liverpool University, has called sugar “the new tobacco”. The only difference between the two substances and their impact on health, he says, is time. It has even been said during this debate that sugar is more addictive than cocaine.
A group of British and American academics have formed a pressure group, Action on Sugar, to lobby governments and food manufacturers to voluntarily reduce the level of added sugar present in processed foods by 20-30 per cent.
If the sugar level in these foods was reduced slowly, the academics say, the public would not even notice.
In Britain this happened with salt, following a 1990s campaign for its reduction. With the co-operation of the food manufacturers, targets were set to reduce salt levels in processed food over three to five years. Kellogg’s Cornflakes, for example, now contain 60 per cent less salt than they did 20 years ago.
Opponents of the anti-sugar stance point to what happened when fat was made the pariah of the nutrition industry – food manufacturers removed fat from products and substituted high levels of sugar instead. In Ireland, according to Dr Janette Walton of UCC, there are no guidelines on sugar consumption.
The Irish University Nutrition Alliance figures on mean adult daily sugar consumption in the Republic show that it actually fell between 1997 and 2010 – from 98.4 grammes in the 1997-1999 study to 91.6 grammes in the 2008-2010 study. Dr Walton will not be drawn on the dangers of sugar, pointing out that even definitions of what actually constitutes sugar vary.